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IOC bans Russia from 2018 Winter Olympics following doping scandal

Athletes can still participate as independent athletes.

PyeongChang 2018 Torch Relay Continues Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has banned Russia from the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea for its state-sponsored doping program, which was first unveiled in the lead up to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

The IOC’s ruling suspends the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) from the 2018 Winter Olympics, and will not allow any member of the ROC or the Russia Ministry of Sport to be accredited for the games. In addition, several members of the ROC and Ministry of Sport have been banned from any future participation in the Olympics.

What happens now?

Banning Russia from the games doesn’t necessarily mean we won’t see Russian athletes at the Olympics. The IOC left the option open for athletes to compete as “Independent Olympic Athletes,” which has been a longstanding provision that is typically used in cases of political transition, international sanctions, or the suspension of an Olympic committee, as is the case with Russia.

This would mean that Russian athletes could compete, but without wearing Russian uniforms, having no Russian iconography, and the country’s anthem would not be played should any medals be awarded. In addition, athletes can only compete on an invitation-based system, which the IOC has stated will be selective — and subject athletes to greater scrutiny.

“These invited athletes will participate, be it in individual or team competitions, in the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 under the name “Olympic Athlete from Russia (OAR)”. They will compete with a uniform bearing this name and under the Olympic Flag. The Olympic Anthem will be played in any ceremony.”

Reports initially stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested he would resist athletes competing as Independent Olympic Athletes, but no official statement has been made at this time.

What does this mean for the Winter Olympics?

Simply put: It’s bad. The Winter Olympics have long struggled due to dwindling viewership and exorbitant costs for host cities. Banning Russia, one of the largest TV audiences in the world, only exacerbates those problems.

In particular it causes issues for ice hockey, which is still reeling from the announcement that no NHL players will travel in South Korea for the games. Russia was certainly going to pick up the slack, likely cruising to a gold medal in the process by allowing their professional players in the KHL (the overwhelming majority of whom are Russian) to play in the Olympics.

The economic hit the IOC will take as a result of banning Russia is significant, and it’s unclear now whether there will be repercussions to sponsorship as a result of the banning.

How did it get to this point?

In November 2015, German television network ARD reported on the breadth and scale of Russia’s state-sponsored doping scheme, which involved tampering with samples, and using a secret shadow lab during the 2014 games in Sochi, where Russian intelligence operatives would assist in swapping tainted samples with clean ones — using a hole in the wall of a lab.

These revelations led to the publication of an extensive report by the World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA) in June of 2016, weeks before the Olympics in Rio were scheduled to begin. Sixty-eight members of the Russian track and field team were banned from the games as a result of the report, but critics slammed the IOC for being soft on Russia by not issuing a complete ban.

At the time the IOC’s reasoning was that it did not have time to look over the report fully, or verify all of WADA’s claims. Now, one year later, everything in the WADA report has been verified and everything published in the 2016 report has been found to be true.

In November, Putin claimed that the WADA report is part of a conspiracy against him by the United States to hurt his chances of re-election in March of 2018, and to exact revenge for tampering with the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.

“The controlling stake is located in the United States, because the main companies that order and pay for television rights, the main sponsors, the main advertisement buyers and so forth are located there. I have very serious suspicions that this is done to create the necessary environment, to incite discontent among sports fans, athletes, that the state was allegedly involved in these violations and is responsible for them in response to our alleged interference in their elections, they want to create problems during the election of the president of Russia.”

Dick Pound, current IOC delegate and former President of WADA has said publicly that he feels the IOC “dropped the ball” by not punishing Russia more harshly ahead of the Rio Olympics. Pound strongly criticized those inside the IOC, whom he felt were making decisions based on their own re-election and protecting sponsorship money rather than protecting the sanctity of the games.

“I think it has gone too far, and the government shows no contrition or recognition regarding the established facts. That makes everyone complicit. The IOC needs to take control of the situation, rather than allow the Russians to pre-empt it by walking away.”

The unprecedented move to ban Russia is an effort by the IOC to clean up the games still reeling from the 2016 WADA report.